January 28, 2013

How to Present an Incredible Beer and Cheese Tasting

This weekend's "No Whey Friday" beer and cheese tasting event absolutely lived up to expectations.

Beehive Barely Buzzed cheese
Michael Landis, of Atlanta Foods International, made an intoxicating presentation that stunned the 50 or so people in the meeting room at the Four Points Sheraton. As a Certified Cheese Professional, lead trainer for the Institut du Fromage, and international cheese judge, Michael brought expertise that made the event as educational as it was delicious. It was essentially a master class on how to conduct an amazing beer and cheese tasting.

To whet the palates, Highland Brewing Company served St. Terese's Pale Ale, an easy going beer brewed with whole leaf Cascade and Chinook hops.

Michael began by explaining that beer's variety, versatility, and range make it a much more interesting companion for cheese than wine. Bread and cheese go hand in hand, shouldn't "liquid bread" as well?

Brewers and cheesemakers actually have a lot in common. They are both artisans, working long hours to perfect their craft and coercing microorganisms for weeks, months, or years to create a product for people to consume and enjoy. Brewing and cheesemaking probably even developed around the same time, when humans began to domesticate animals, farm, and transition from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle.

Michael Landis cheese tasting
Michael Landis at work
A successful beer and cheese tasting will typically start with light and easy pairings and develop into more bold and adventurous flavors. When tasting, begin by sampling the beer to identify its character. Is it malty, roasty, hoppy, bitter, sweet? Do you pick up on any toast, toffee, caramel, chocolate, or spice? What is the mouthfeel like? How does the beer flavor change as it warms?

Then try the cheese, focusing entirely on what it brings to the table. Is it buttery, creamy, tangy, funky? Do you get any mushroom or earthiness? Is it hard or soft? Is the rind edible? If so, what does that contribute?

After you've experienced the cheese in its entirety, have another sip of beer to see how the two interact. Do all the flavors stay, or do some go away? Are there any new flavors that you didn't recognize before?

Michael used a fantastic relationship analogy throughout the tasting that helped explain how different cheeses and beers can interact. You could have two really bold and outrageous people who when they get together, settle down and behave. Or maybe two really nice people who just don't get along, no matter how hard they try. Or maybe two meek introverts who once the get together, really open up and show off their true character.

The following five beer and cheese illustrated several different types of pairings and demonstrated what artisan brewers and cheesemakers can do when performing at the top of their game:

1. La Bonne Vie Double Créme Brie & Adam Reinke's Black Lager

Brie and beer
The beer: Representing MALT, Asheville's homebrew club, Adam Reinke's Black Lager was a homebrewed version of a German Schwarzbier. Made with all German ingredients, it featured bready and toasty malt flavors with just a little roastiness from a small portion of chocolate malt in the grain bill. The hops were light and balanced. Despite being a dark colored beer, this style is actually fairly mild and made for an excellent beginning to the pairing.

The cheese: La Bonne Vie ("the good life") Double Créme Brie is a very buttery soft cheese with pronounced mushroom character from the rind. The "Double Créme" designation indicates a relative balance between buttery notes and mushroom, whereas a Triple would have more butter flavor (more fat content) and a regular brie would have less butter and more mushroom flavor. This cheese has a somewhat mild flavor, making it a versatile pairing option.

The combo: This pairing illustrated a combination of flavors in which each player retains its original character, resulting in an overall impression of toast (from the beer) and butter.

2. Pineland Farms 6 Month Aged Cheddar & Highland Brewing Company's Bourbon Barrel Aged Gaelic Ale

The beer: Highland Brewing Company aged their flagship Gaelic Ale for three months in Woodford bourbon barrels. This was the fourth use of the barrel, so the bourbon notes were fairly subtle, presenting more wood flavor that bourbon. The result was a very smooth and malty amber ale with just a hint of bourbon.

The cheese: Pineland Farms Creamery, from Maine, produces 6 Month Aged Cheddar made from the milk of Holstein cows. A relatively young cheddar, this cheese retained some butter flavor, but also had some sour cream tanginess (which tends to grow as a cheddar is aged).

The combo: This was a pairing that illustrated a substitution of flavors. We found that the alcohol in the beer enhanced the buttery notes in the cheddar which made the bourbon flavor fade away. The end result: a slight banana finish replacing the tanginess in the cheddar and the spice from the bourbon.

3. Reypenaer 1 Year Aged Holland Gouda & Heinzelmännchen's Gopher Ale

The beerHeinzelmännchen, a small brewery located in Sylva, NC, produces a German pilsner brewed with ale yeast: crisp, malty, a little fruity, with a great toffee nose.

The cheese: The Van Den Wijgaard family has produced the Reypenaer Holland Gouda since 1906. It is a very creamy gouda with some tang, and also maple and caramel notes. Goudas can be aged up to seven years.

The combo: This was an example of a blending pairing, in which each parts brings out the best in the other. Michael remarked on the excellent mouthfeel of this pairing.

4. Sweet Grass Dairy Black Swan & Cigar City's Big Sound Scotch Ale

The beer: Cigar City's Big Sound Scotch Ale is a bold and flavorful beer from Tampa, Florida, with smoke, loads of caramel, and a dark brown color.

The cheese: From Thomasville, Georgia, Sweet Grass Dairy's Black Swan is light and tangy, mild and grassy, with an earthiness characteristic of farm cheeses. Black Swan is modeled after a French farmhouse-style cheese and is washed in beer. They regularly change the beer wash, which bring different flavors to each batch.

The combo: One might expect the big Scotch Ale to wipe out the light farmhouse cheese, but this was actually a perfect example of a complimentary pairing.

5. Beehive Cheese Co. Barely Buzzed - Thomas Creek's Up the Creek Extreme Ale

The beer: Based in Greenville, SC, Thomas Creek markets their Extreme Ale as an IPA, but it's really something of hybrid between an IPA and a barleywine. At 12.5% ABV, it is indeed extreme, with lots of spice and alcoholic bite that made it taste like it was barrel aged (it was not).

The cheese: From Beehive Cheese Co. in Utah, this award-winning cheese is hand rubbed-with ground espresso from a Colorado coffee roaster and French lavender. Michael recommended that we leave the rind towards the end so we could first get the full effect of the cheese first.

The combo: The coup de grȃce! The bite and the spice from the Extreme Ale combined with the espresso and lavender rub to deal a final blow to an already astounded audience. Whereas the big flavor of the Extreme Ale would wipe out another cheese, the honey and caramel flavors of the cheese with the floral and roasty rub stood their ground and played very nicely.

All of the above cheeses are available through Atlanta Foods International and Asheville's Earth Fare grocery stores. If your store doesn't have the cheese you want, just ask and they can probably get it for you.

Have any questions? Leave a comment!

Stay tuned for a recap from Asheville's Winter Warmer!